James H. HutsonSwiss and the American Constitution

2.5 James H. Hutson, Swiss and the American Constitution, excerpt, in The Sister Republics, Switzerland and the United States, from 1776 to the Present, Library of Congress, Washington DC, 1991, p. 24 – 31

a) Background

This part of the Anthology is focused on the early cultural exchanges and cultural encounters between Switzerland and the United States. According to James Hutson it is not immodest to say that we are talking about a special relationship. He writes in the introduction to the book The Sister Republics, that in 1776 the government of Switzerland known to its citizens as Eidgenossenschaft (community of the oath) had existed for almost 500 years. The Eidgenossenschaft was a Confederacy of 13 states called Cantons, which where republics of various sizes, some democratic, others aristocratic”. Republics were rare in 1776 and had little company in 18th century Europe. As the introduction states, therefore, many Swiss welcomed the Declaration of Independence of the United States “since it ushered a soulmate into the community of nations.” Republicanism was not the only bond between Switzerland and the United States. From 1776 on, political developments in one country often paralleled those in the other, and on important occasions served as a constitutional model for the others. First, according to James Hutson, the Amercian national constitution, the Articles of Confederation, was constructed on the Swiss model of a confederacy of some over sovereign states. Then, Americans repudiated confederal government in 1787 as impotent and unworkable and adapted a new federal constitution. The opponents of the new charter, the Anti Federalists argued that a Swiss style government was still a viable model which offered the best hope for the preservation of American liberty. The Swiss themselves repudiated confederate government in 1848 using many of the same arguments Americans had marshalled against it in 1787 and adapted a Federal constitution modelled after the American constitution of 1787. After the Civil War many American state and local governments adapted constitutional reforms borrowed from the Swiss. The initiative and referendum – which continues to this hour to give the politics of California and other influential states their distinctive tone. The institutional borrowing, according to James Hutson, between the United States and Switzerland ceased after the first World War. Not long afterwards Swiss and Americans ceased referring to each others countries as sister republics.

The editor has divided the book in various chapters, following the chronological order of the book and parallelizing it with the chronological and topical order of the part of the Americanization of Swiss law and legal culture of the Anthology. The book is a welcome addition to the views of the legal relationship between the United States and Switzerland by an American view. The book is vividly written and contains pictures. It is addressed to a broader public and contains a number of footnotes for further research. It is a short and coherent “red thread” (Roter Faden) of the history of the relationship from 1776 to about the first World War.

The author of the book James H. Hutson received his PhD in history from Yale University in 1964. He has been a member of the history department in Yale and William and Mary. Since 1982 he has been chief of the Libraries manuscript division. Dr. Hutson is the author of several books (see biography). We particularly draw the attention to a text written after World War II on the bombing of the Swiss city of Schaffhausen in April 1944 by American airplanes.

b) Summary

The text at hand is a chapter of the book The Sister Republics, Switzerland and the United States,  from 1776 to the present, which accompanied an exhibition in the Library of Congress opening in May 1991 to celebrate the 700th anniversary of Switzerland.

The introductory statement of the text at hand sets the stage: “Having declared independence from Great Britain in July 1776, the 13 American states faced the problem of establishing a general government. According to John Adams, no one proposed consolidating the vast continent under one national government”. Rather the preference in the Continental Congress was to follow the example of the Greeks, the Dutch, and the Swiss, and form a confederacy of states each of which must have a separate government.” Americans who observed the alpine republic found models for a variety of polities. Remarkable is the identification of sources of a considerable knowledge of Switzerland and Swiss history by the American politicians of the time. “Americans acquired their information by reading old, reliable books like Abraham Stanyan’s An Account of Switzerland, Written in the Year 1714 and by consulting a number of new books that appeared in the 1770s: Vinzenz Bernhard von Tscharner and Gottlieb Emmanuel von Haller’s Dictionaire géographique, historique et politique de la Suisse (Neuchàtel, 1775), Fortune Barthelemy de Felice’s multi-volume Code de l’Humanité (Yverdon, 1778), and especially Sketches of the Natural, Civil, and Political State of Swisserland (London, 1779) by the English churchman, William Coxe.” …“Additional information about the Swiss was supplied to Americans by their minister in London, John Adams. In January 1787 the first volume of Adam’s A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America was published, in which he surveyed the political systems In the Swiss cantons, dividing them into “democratical” and “aristocratical” governments. “

Adams’s Defense arrived in the United States in april 1787 and thus was available during the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia in summer and during the ratification campaign that followed. Hutson characterizes the use of both sides of those findings. According to Hutson, “Madison and the Federalists of course won the argument with the Antifederalist about the “Imbecility” of confederal government, just as Swiss reformers won the same argument with their opponents in 1848. But many historians contend, that in the end the Antifederalists were winners, too, for they succeeded in compelling the Federalists to add the bill of rights to the Constitution, thereby giving the nation a charter that many consider as valuable as the Constitution itself.”

Hutson then deals with Paul Widmers provocative thesis (see text 2.2) that the Swiss helped to inspire the Bill of Rights. It may be difficult to document Widmers specific claim between Switzerland and the Bill of Rights. In a larger sense, Hutson states, that he is correct in decerning a spiritual communion between Americans and Swiss at the end of the 18th century. Hutson also uses examples from the cultural realm. Especially the first musical written and performed by Americans, which opened on April 18th 1798 by William Dunlap “The Archers or the Mountaineers of Switzerland a dramatic depiction of William Tell and his compatatriots, Fürst, Melchtal und Stauffacher.”

c) Text

You can find a scan (PDF) of the original text here:
A_2.5_HUTSON_Swiss and American Constitution

© Prof. Jens Drolshammer, office@drolshammer.com,  www.drolshammer.net

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